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What are musical modes in music theory?

musical modes

Modes are some of the basic building blocks of Western music. While the basics of the theory may seem intimidating to beginners, the concept is not terribly complex. You probably already know more about modes than you realize.

With Skoove’s free 7-day trial, you can familiarize yourself with modes and the many pieces of music they appear in from popular to classical and beyond. Skoove is a great way to squeeze even five minutes of practice into your day. And, like any musical skill, understanding the modes is one you will develop the more you exercise it. 

Key Takeaways

  • The major scale contains seven modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.
  • Modes are a way to reorganize the pitches of a scale so that the focal point of the scale changes. In a single key, every mode contains the exact same pitches. However, by changing the focal point, we can access new and interesting sounds.
  • Like most of Western music, the modes have their roots in Church music. But, they have found relevant applications across a wide range of musical styles from film music and orchestral works to pop, rock, jazz, and beyond.

What are the differences between scales & modes?

A musical scale is a set of notes within an octave arranged in sequential order by their pitch. The ascending or descending interval relationships among the pitches define each scale. From this relationship, we can derive a generic formula to transpose the scale to different keys. Moreover, the notes from a scale form melodies and harmonies.

There are several types of scales. Some piano scales are naturally occurring in the harmonic series, while others are synthetic and generated more from a theoretical idea. Both types are used frequently in music and are worth understanding.

The modes are simply permutations of a parent scale. For example, if we take the C major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C), and keep the same set of pitches but begin the sequence from D (D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D), we have just created the second mode of the major scale. If we keep the same set of pitches and begin from E (E – F – G – A – B – C – D – E), then we have built the third mode of the major scale. We can continue this logic until we have built a scale from every pitch in the set.

While all of these are obviously musical modes, many are also church modes, appearing specifically in sacred music. But they have a wider application in the secular sphere as well.

Just how many modes are there, anyway?

Glad you asked. The list of the seven widely recognized modes is as follows, all deriving their names from geographical areas of Ancient Greece. 

Ionian

The Ionian mode is the same thing as the major scale. Many piano teaching programs begin with mastering the C major scale as its diatonic notes all occur on white keys. So if you have learned this, you have already learned the Ionian mode!

Ionian mode

Dorian

  • The Dorian mode is the second mode of the major scale. 
  • If we take all the pitches of the C major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C) and begin the scale from D, we find D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D. 
  • The Dorian mode is a minor scale with natural sixth and flat seventh scale degrees.

dorian mode

Phrygian

  • The Phrygian mode is the third mode of the major scale.
  • To build the Phrygian mode, take all the pitches of the C major scale and begin from E (E – F – G – A – B – C – D – E).
  • The Phrygian mode is a minor scale with flat second, flat sixth, and flat seventh scale degrees.

Phrygian mode

Lydian

  • The Lydian mode is the fourth mode of the major scale.
  • If we take the pitches of the C major scale and start from F, we find that the F Lydian mode is spelled F – G – A – B – C – D – E – F.
  • The Lydian mode is a major scale with a raised fourth scale degree.

Lydian mode

Mixolydian

  • The Mixolydian mode is the fifth mode of the major scale.
  • This is a major scale based on the fifth scale degree of whichever key you happen to be in. The easiest way to build the Mixolydian mode is to take the pitches of the C major scale and begin from G (G – A – B – C – D – E – F – G).
  •  Mixolydian mode is bound up with chord progressions, especially between the tonic and dominant. Consequently, you can find it in most forms of popular music.

Aeolian

  • The Aeolian mode is the sixth mode of the major scale.
  • The Aeolian mode is also called the natural minor scale. This means that it is based on the sixth scale degree of its relative major scale. For instance, a C major scale would take A minor as its relative minor and all the white notes on the keyboard from A to A would constitute the A natural minor scale or A Aeolian mode
  • Many popular songs written in a minor key make use of the Aeolian mode. If you ever want to try your hand at composition it’s a solid place to start.

Aeolian mode

Locrian

  • The Locrian mode is the seventh mode of the major scale.
  • If we use all the pitches of the C major scale beginning from B (B – C – D – E – F – G – A – B), we find that the Locrian mode is a minor scale with flat second, fifth, sixth, and seventh scale degrees.
  • The Locrian mode is probably the least commonly used mode, but has a wonderful and enigmatic character that is well worth exploring.

Locrian mode

How do I incorporate modes into my playing?

The most effective way to study musical modes is to have a keyboard in front of you. If you don’t have access to a physical keyboard, try using a virtual piano.

If you have ever tried to learn a classical piece, or even one of your favorite pop songs on the piano, you already have more experience with musical modes than you likely think. But you can also start from a simpler place.

A virtual piano allows you to integrate the online mode feature to point out the components of each mode as you play a selection of songs. This will raise your awareness of how the mode is the foundation of melody and how to anticipate what each mode will do.

In addition, playing the modes themselves out on the keyboard and listening to the distance between notes in each mode will help tune your ear to their appearance in popular settings.

Before you know it, you’ll be able to identify a certain mode in a certain song yourself. You will have become an expert!

Musical modes exist in all genres and have featured prominently in compositions from Gregorian chant to High Renaissance polyphony to present-day pop. Learning about modes, their types, and their functions is but another example of the benefits of music education.

Don’t despair if you don’t get the hang of the nomenclature right away—it isn’t stopping you from making music!

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Author of this blog post:

Cecilia

Cecilia Gigliotti is a writer, musician, and photographer. Having spent her childhood singing and performing, she took an additional interest in the piano as a teenager and grows more passionate about it with each passing year. She lives in Berlin with a ukulele called Uke Skywalker: she can be found covering her favorite songs on YouTube (Lia Lio) and writing about music elsewhere on the Internet..

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